Bathroom scale against blue background to help check for obesity

Obesity risk factors: what you need to know

Medically reviewed on May 24, 2023 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Table of contents

The presence of excessive body fat (a condition also known as obesity) can lead to a handful of negative health outcomes. In fact, obese individuals, or those with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above, may be at increased risk of diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, and depression. [1]

While obesity often occurs as a result of eating more calories than the body needs and neglecting physical activity, it may also occur as a result of genetics, medical conditions, and even socioeconomic status. [2]

In this article, we’re breaking down the various obesity risk factors that may contribute to the development of this condition so that you can better monitor your overall health and wellness.

1. Poor diet

Obesity is widely prevalent in the United States: 41.9% of American adults are obese, putting them at risk of poor health and premature death. [3] Consequently, chronic diseases associated with obesity are also on the rise and are becoming some of the leading causes of death in the US. [4]

The Western diet is believed to be one contributing factor to the rise of obesity. This diet can be characterized by the following [4]:

  • High calories
  • High saturated and trans fat
  • High sugar
  • High refined carbohydrates
  • High sodium
  • Low fruits
  • Low vegetables

Accordingly, eating a low-nutritional diet that consists of processed foods high in sugars and fat may lead to obesity. So too will consuming too much alcohol, since it’s high in calories. [1]

The calories we consume act as fuel for our bodies, providing our bodies with the energy they need to function properly. However, when we consume too many calories, our body stores the excess energy as fat deposits. [1]

Over time, this can lead to excess weight gain and, if left unchecked, obesity. [1]

See related: How to lose weight without dieting

2. Low activity levels

A sedentary or low-activity lifestyle can also lead to excess weight gain. Regular exercise provides many benefits to your body: It can improve your cognitive function, mitigate disease, strengthen your bones and muscles, and improve your overall mood. [5]

It can also help manage your body weight. [5]

When we exercise or perform physical movements, our bodies use the energy we’ve stored from food as fuel. The most readily available fuel sources come from the carbohydrates we consume, whether that’s from a breakfast bagel or a dinner plate filled with quinoa and sweet potatoes. [7]

As such, it’s critical that the body burns these calories through physical activity. If there’s an excess of calories left over, fat may begin to accumulate throughout the body.

Those with a sedentary (low-activity) lifestyle will spend the majority of the day sitting or lying down. Several factors in our daily lives actually promote low levels of physical activity, such as [6]:

  • Low walkability in urban spaces
  • Office culture
  • Screen addiction

Unfortunately, limited movement throughout the day can lead to other factors that may contribute to obesity, such as [6]:

  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Weight gain
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Depression
  • Musculoskeletal disorders
  • Metabolic disorders

3. High stress

Experiencing high levels of stress throughout the day—whether you’re reeling from a difficult day at work or navigating a family emergency—can have a significant impact on your appetite and energy regulation. [8]

One study found that chronic stress is associated with body mass index or BMI-related changes within the body, such as higher levels of glucose and insulin, which may contribute to metabolic dysfunction and a higher risk of obesity. [8]

Acute stress, on the other hand, can largely impact eating patterns. Depending on the individual, stress can cause either an increase in appetite or a decrease in appetite. Those who experience heightened hunger often increase their food intake or take part in binging behaviors. These behaviors are often accompanied by low-nutrient and high-calorie snacks and fast food. [8]

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4. Genetics

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified more than 50 genes associated with obesity. These genes can influence the body’s ability to effectively metabolize and balance energy (calories). They include [9]:

  • FTO
  • LEP
  • LEPR
  • INSIG2
  • MC4R
  • PCSK1

Variances in these genes can impact how the body regulates food intake and activity levels.

5. Medical conditions and certain medications

Medical conditions, like Cushing’s disease, can affect the pituitary gland and may disrupt the body’s hormone levels, which can lead to weight gain. [10]

Similarly, certain medications, like steroids and antidepressants, can contribute to a high BMI. [10]

6. Socioeconomic status and gender

In addition to genetics and lifestyle factors, socioeconomic status and gender are also known to be risk factors for obesity.

In fact, certain demographics are more affected by obesity than others, including [3]:

  • Non-Hispanic Black adults (49.9%)
  • Hispanic adults (45.6%)
  • Hispanic white adults (41.4%)
  • Non-Hispanic Asian adults (16.1%)

It was also found that men and women with higher education are less likely to be obese compared to those with lower levels of education. High-income men also experience lower obesity prevalence. [3]

The reason for this is complex. However, oftentimes, those with lower income levels and lower levels of education have less access to [12]:

  • Affordable, healthy food options
  • Quality healthcare
  • Affordable exercise facilities

Correspondingly, one in three food-insecure adults is obese. [11]

Risks posed by obesity

Have you ever wondered how obesity and diabetes are related? As mentioned earlier, overweight or obese adults –are at an increased risk of developing potentially life-threatening medical conditions. These conditions can include, but are not limited to [13]:

  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Heart failure
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Sleep apnea
  • Cancer
  • Mental illness
  • Body pain

Monitor your health with Everlywell

Unfortunately, obesity prevalence is growing on a global scale, and many aspects of modern society may be contributing to higher BMIs, such as low-nutritional diets, sedentary lifestyles, high-stress environments, and disparate socioeconomic statuses.

That said, not all obesity risk factors are external.

Some may experience a proclivity to obesity as a result of variances in their genes, medications, or health conditions that affect the body’s hormone levels.

To help you keep an eye on your full-body health, Everlywell offers a variety of at-home lab tests that make it possible to monitor your hormone levels, heart health, vitamin deficiencies, and metabolic function all from the comfort of your own home. You can also speak with an Everlywell clinician about weight management to mitigate the risk of adverse health issues in the future.

Explore our test kit options or schedule a virtual weight loss management visit today to learn more.

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  1. Obesity. NHS. Published February 15, 2023. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  2. What causes obesity & overweight? Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Published July 28, 2021. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  3. Adult Obesity Facts. CDC. Published May 17, 2022. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  4. Rakhra V. Obesity and the western diet: how we got here. Missouri Medicine. doi: 117(6): 536–538. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  5. Benefits of physical activity. CDC. Published June 16, 2022. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  6. Park J, Moon J, Kim H, Kong M, Oh Y. Sedentary lifestyle: overview of updated evidence of potential health risks. Korean Journal of Family Medicine. doi: 10.4082/kjfm.20.0165. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  7. Jequier E. Carbohydrates as a source of energy. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/59.3.682S. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  8. Sinha R. Stress as a common risk factor for obesity and addiction. Biological Psychiatry. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.01.032. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  9. Behavior, environment, and genetic factors all have a role in causing people to be overweight and obese. CDC. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  10. Causes of obesity. CDC. Accessed March 21, 2022. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  11. Pan L, Sherry B, Njai R, Blanck H. Food insecurity is associated with obesity among us adults in 12 states. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.06.011. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  12. Access to foods that support healthy dietary patterns. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  13. Health effects of overweight and obesity. CDC. Published September 24, 2022. Accessed April 10, 2023.
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